A VERY English Scandal’ is a 3-episode mini-series shown on BBC and Amazon Prime based on the 2016 book by James Preston, which chronicles the true story of Jeremy Thorpe (played by Hugh Grant), a Liberal Member of the British Parliament who fell into disgrace because of his homosexuality affair with an unstable man.
The story is told from the time he met Norman Josiffe (Ben Whishaw) as a 21-year old farmboy in 1961 who he asked to come to London and became his lover for about four years. He shouldered all of Norman’s expenses, even paid for his apartment, because Norman cannot hold a job as he lost his National Insurance Card and cannot get a new one.
Norman is quite problematic, has a drinking problem and is taking drugs for mental instability. Jeremy eventually has a hard time dealing with this and breaks up with him. What they have was most certainly not just a fling and Norman starts threatening to expose his homosexuality with the love letters Jeremy sent to him, so Jeremy asks his good friend, Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings, who played the Duke of Windsor in “The Crown”), to talk to Norman. Peter gives money to Norman, who quiets down for sometime.
Jeremy gets elected as the leader of the Liberal Party in 1968, the youngest man to lead their party after so long. He decides to get married to camouflage his gayness. He marries a woman named Caroline and they have a son. But Norman becomes more and more mentally unstable and calls up Caroline and reveals to her his past relationship with her husband.
This starts Jeremy’s plans to get the pestering Norman killed, but his plans are never really carried out. Caroline died in a car crash and he marries again in 1973, to Marion Stein, a countess. By this time, Norman has simmered down, but they get to meet each other again by chance on a crossroad and Norman even waves to Jeremy.
This chance meeting rekindles Jeremy’s desire to have Norman killed and he asks a friend to arrange it. But the actual plan becomes a comedy of errors. The hired assassin kills Norman’s dog instead and this prompts Norman to go to the cops right away to report that the attempt on his life is ordered by a member of the parliament, Jeremy Thorpe.
The process is long but eventually, Jeremy is taken to court, the Old Bailey, the central criminal court in England, for conspiring to kill Norman, and it became a very celebrated case. He gets a famous, crafty defense lawyer (Adrian Scarborough) and the trial starts in 1979, fully covered by the media. But the judge is obviously prejudiced against Norman, practically influencing the jury to absolve Jeremy.
The show ends with a written epilogue of what happened to the characters. Jeremy never returned to public office. His wife stood by him even when he got sick of Parkinson’s disease. She died in 2014 and he followed 9 months later. Norman is shown as he is now, old but owning 11 dogs.
The best thing about this show is that it only runs for three episodes, unlike most series these days that needlessly run up to 8 or 10 episodes and you can really feel them being padded and stretched. This one moves swiftly and it’s expertly crafted and directed by Stephen Frears, who did such fine memorable films as “Dangerous Liaisons” and “The Queen”, and the hit series on British royalty, “The Crown”.
The core of the series is actually a sad but smoldering brew of politics, closeted sexuality and traumatic love that turned to hate, but the way Frears treats it is with liberal touches of comedy and a brilliant, jaunty musical score by Murray Gold. Then there’s the singular fact that it is extremely well acted. Hugh Grant is a pretty boy actor who charmed his fans in such rom-coms as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill”.
Now 60 years old and with creases on his face, he discards his classically Brit good looks to give a very disarming portrayal of a top politician who plots the murder of a man he once loved. He might have an evil, manipulative intention but somehow, we feel for him and we don’t want him to be outed. He’s quite a revelation, showing he’s capable of displaying wider range and emotion than his past roles allowed.
This is not Grant’s first gay role as he also played one in “Maurice” by E.M. Forster. But he’s more open now in doing several kissing scenes with Ben Whishaw, who gives excellent support. And although it’s Grant who excels for us here, it’s not him who won an award for this show but Whishaw who won the Emmy and the Golden Globe best supporting actor awards for his portrayal of the obviously fey and vulnerable Norman. Whishaw, by the way, is openly gay and he’s very effective in conveying this in the show with small but meaningful nuances in a number of scenes.
The Jeremy Thorpe case was an enormous bombshell in British politics. The revelation about his true sexual preference is as big a shocker as his alleged crime of attempting to kill his former lover. His story is actually just another version of the sad life of a closeted gay man, as what happened to noted writer Oscar Wilde and mathematician Alan Turing (“The Imitation Game”) who were both persecuted for homosexual acts, a crime in Britain then.
But Jeremy is lucky, in a way, as he was protected by the law for sometime and, later, even the court judge sided with him and openly insulted his lower class accuser in front of the jury, making the final verdict really much about class as it was about homophobia. Now, candidates can run openly announcing that they are gay, lesbian or trans and they no longer have to conceal it, showing how much progress sexual minorities have made in public and political life.